Sand’s hands are depicting how most Jews are descended from converts who never set foot in the Holy Land. That has come as a bit of a surprise to many Jews and as a colossal affront to Zionism, Israel’s national ideology. The modern Israeli state was founded on belief in a “Jewish people” as a unified nation, established in biblical times, scattered by Rome, stranded in exile for 2,000 years, then returned to the Promised Land.
But according to Sand there was no exile, and as he seeks to prove by dense forensic archaeological and historical analysis, it is meaningless to talk today about a “people of Israel”. At least not if by that you mean the Jews.
It is hard to imagine a more fundamental challenge to the idea of a modern Jewish state on the site of ancient Judea. Yet the book was a bestseller in Israel and is spreading worldwide. It won a prestigious literary award in France, where Sand is currently on sabbatical. But the reaction of the Jewish community there was hostile. “Hysterical,” he says.
Sand’s own manner in print and in person is urgent rather than polemical; more deadpan than diatribe. He understands the controversy. “After years and years of using phrases like ‘Jewish people’ and ‘Jewish nation for 4,000 years; it isn’t so easy for them to accept a book like mine.”
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